3-time Pelosi opponent not your typical Republican

John Dennis, left, during his 2010 campaign against Rep. Nancy Pelosi, speaks with Nob Hill Republican Women's Club President Joan Leone, center, and Vice President Barbara Kerwick.
(Ben Margot / Associated Press)

This self-regarding city loves its celebrities, be they dandified politician, techie billionaire or quirky sports hero.

John Dennis is none of those things.

Not a single head turns as he enters one of his regular lunch spots, passing the long mahogany bar and striding down a row of tables before settling into a seat near the corner.

His labors may qualify as one of the most futile exercises in all of American politics, an effort akin to shooting a bottle rocket at the moon: Three times Dennis, a libertarian-minded Republican, has run against Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi. Three times he has fallen epically short.


Pelosi, the Democratic House leader, is not just one of the most powerful and prominent women in the nation. She represents a vociferously liberal city, where Republicans are a blink-and-you-miss-them 8% of registered voters. On Nov. 4, she was reelected for the 14th time with 83% support.

Still, Dennis suggests, a struggling party needs to start somewhere.

“This town is an echo chamber, like a super-red town would be,” he says, “and it’s really important to break down the stereotype of what people think so you can have a more interesting discussion of what’s going on.”

Dennis is hardly your standard-issue Republican.

He differs with social conservatives on same-sex marriage, believing such wedlock is none of the federal government’s business, and also on legalized abortion, saying he is “not comfortable using the force of the state” to outlaw the procedure.

He breaks with the chest-thumpers in the GOP who offer American exceptionalism as a rationale for an expansive and assertive foreign policy. Having lived abroad, Dennis says, he has seen the way people resent the United States; for him, a catalyzing political moment came during a 2007 Republican presidential debate when former Texas Rep. Ron Paul characterized the 9/11 attacks as “blowback” for America’s role in the Middle East.

Paul, of course, came nowhere close to winning the GOP presidential nomination, due in no small part to his provocative neo-isolationism. He did, though, build a national following of like-minded Ayn Rand acolytes who shared his fiercely anti-Washington, small-government, keep-your-mitts-off-me-and-my-property philosophy.

Dennis, 51, was one of them.

Raised in a Jersey City housing project, the son of a longshoreman and a City Hall clerk who also served as a local Democratic committeewoman, Dennis came west to help build his ergonomics business. He moved on to the high-tech industry for a few years, until the bubble burst, then went into real estate investment, doing well enough to buy a home in one of San Francisco’s better neighborhoods. He and his wife have an 8-year-old daughter.

Inspired by Paul, Dennis made his first hopeless run against Pelosi in 2010 never really expecting to win, though he confesses to the fleeting you-never-know moment.

One try would have sufficed, but Dennis says Pelosi goaded him to run in 2012 and again in 2014, first by backing a broad expansion of presidential powers to fight terrorism and then by defending the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs assailed by insider Edward Snowden.

Both were stunning government power grabs, Dennis says, and “somebody had to stand up and say something about it in San Francisco.”

Still, running against Pelosi is something of a misnomer. It’s more like shadow boxing. She hasn’t waged any sort of serious reelection campaign in years, and the only time the incumbent acknowledged her Republican opponent was a time in 2010 when they coincidentally crossed paths at a Washington restaurant. Dennis had stopped in for a Guinness. She had dropped by a Young Democrats event. He introduced himself, and they chatted briefly.

“Very charming,” Dennis said of his nemesis. “Very pleasant.” She obligingly posed for a picture, which Dennis posted on Facebook, much to the contempt of supporters who frowned at such fraternization.

Back in the city, he stabs at a kale and romaine salad. Apparently defeat has left no bitter aftertaste.

He enjoyed the experience, Dennis says, even though he was repeatedly walloped. Unlike most over-matched candidates, he never scraped for money, thanks to donors around the country eager to see Pelosi roughed up a bit. He never wanted for media attention: Fox News and talk radio saw to that.

But Dennis is finished being a sacrificial candidate. “I don’t see the point,” he says. “I’ve said enough about Ms. Pelosi.”

His efforts even made him a minor celebrity among Ron Paul followers. Dennis recalls being swarmed at a reunion at the 2012 Republican convention in Tampa, where he signed autographs and posed for photos.

But there’s no such recognition in his home town.

“I would just settle for a vote,” he says with a rueful laugh.

Twitter: @markzbarabak